Here’s the thing about a great, cinematic right-hand man. He reassures the audience they’ve made a good choice the second he appears on the screen. It’s true even if he’s the bad guy’s right-hand man. Why? Because he’s the physical embodiment of loyalty. See what you think of this group.
Truly, one of the great character actors of all time. My goodness, what a list of films: “The Searchers,” “Gone With the Wind,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Mister Roberts,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “My Darling Clementine,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Sergeant York.” Come on! This was a tough guy with a sparkle in his eye that could light up Monument Valley. Yet he was forever the guy one horse over from the star – usually John Wayne or Henry Fonda.
It’s all deadpan brilliance from Mr. Rhames. Thanks to his take-no-guff glare, he’s able to draw your attention without even raising his voice. And when he gives a character a quirky spin, it’s dynamite. He was very high-profile as the right-hand man in the first “Mission: Impossible” films, but I preferred his turn in “Out of Sight” with George Clooney.
A leading man in his own right, Elliott eventually took his majestic mustache and headed for right-hand man territory. His steely-eyed talents often were the best parts of movies such as “Road House” and “Ghost Rider,” or pure westerns such as “Tombstone.” Great voice and a unique sort of casual nobility.
He never, ever seemed like he was acting. He played a variety of right-hand men: co-counsel in “The Verdict,” an editor in “All the President’s Men,” a loyal quarterback coach in “Heaven Can Wait.” His characters always knew full well how flawed their friends were, but remained true blue anyway.
There is a weariness that pervades Ray Winstone’s performances, elevating and deepening them dramatically. He combines the look of an old-time character actor with the inner turmoil of a modern Method master. Check out his work with Jack Nicholson in “The Departed.”
Here’s a case of an actor being so perfect he eventually turned into a parody of himself. Kennedy was the dude in the “Airport” movies – Joe Patroni – who was either helping clear an icy runway or pilot a plane in jeopardy. He later operated as Leslie Nielsen’s partner in the “Naked Gun” movies. Yet I’ll always remember him from “Cool Hand Luke,” as the brutal convict who comes to admire and befriend Paul Newman.
What’s amazing about Woody Strode is how much impact he made in films where he often had little dialogue. He’d have been an action star in another era. Still, he was terrific in films such as “Spartacus,” “The Professionals” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
Sizemore’s right-hand men operate within a moral universe all their own. That’s why his crook in “Heat” is just as convincing as his combat soldier in “Saving Private Ryan.” It’s not about right and wrong. It’s about following orders until your last breath.
Morse is a versatile actor who fits into any number of roles, but when he’s in his right-hand man mode, he’s awesome. He plays them all business on the outside, but with an undercurrent of intelligence, empathy and humor. In “The Green Mile” and “The Rock,” when his character questions an order, you can see how much it pains him.
Jaeckel was the epitome of the right-hand man, blending into the background at the same time he kept the hero honest. That was never more true than in “The Dirty Dozen,” where he was the duty-bound MP surrounded by psychos on a combat mission behind enemy lines.
Patton does sort of an Everyman version of the right-hand man, and it’s highly effective. It’s a Southern, voice-of-reason approach. It worked very well in the action flick “Armageddon,” for instance. And Patton was remarkable in “Remember the Titans,” where he played a head football coach who is forced to become the right-hand man for Denzel Washington.
Morgan Freeman is the best right-hand man in the history of film. In “Million Dollar Baby,” “Unforgiven,” “Glory,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” he’s riveting. At times he takes over those films. And he’s almost always doing it while shouldering the weight of the film’s larger message. He’s brains, brawn and conscience.
Now that’s a dependable dozen. Add to The List!